I was born the youngest of four boys, in Overbrook, a lower class neighborhood in Ottawa, Canada. I was an unexpected child. My mother had a lot of things on her plate. She already had three children and she had extreme progressive Rheumatoid Arthritis. By that time she could not work and was bed ridden. During her pregnancy with me the disease went into spontaneous remission. It never came back. Here I am crying with my mother who is back to health.
My family was not at all religious. We heard a lot of religious words though : -) My parents baptized me "just in case" - Presbyterian. There was no real Christian follow up. We never went to Church. The family was very intelligent and loving but there were a lot of fights.
We had no God. Also our neighborhood was quite rough. There were motorcycle gangs, suicides, car bombings, and murders. A ten year old boy in the house behind ours stabbed his two younger sisters to death. Early on I developed an eating disorder, perhaps in response to the fear I lived in. I refused to eat days on end. My friends grew up big but I stayed skinny.
My spiritual emptiness also manifested itself in an unquenchable thirst for attention. At 5 years old I did a Tiny Tim impression ("Tip Toe Through The Tulips"). Everyone laughed hysterically and I loved it. However, this thirst for attention was not good for a kid my size. I got beat up a lot by neighborhood bullies. One of them broke my elbow with a hockey stick. He was aiming for my head! The fellow who hit me was named Robbie. 15 years later, I was listening to the radio and heard about Robbie. He had been holding up a bank at gunpoint and failed to surrender his weapon when police hit the scene. He was shot to death. The direction we set for ourselves in childhood has a profound effect on our adult lives. My desire for attention would place me in situations that almost cost me my life and worse still, my soul.
My mother's grandfather was a United Minister and my Grandparents on her side were United Church goers. My grandmother gave us all King James's Bibles and there was a period when my mother began reading it to me. I loved that but I didn't know why. I was baby-sat by a Catholic family, the Hanlon's. Their daughter Claire was my best friend. I used to look at the Cross on their wall and wonder about it.
Soon after that my older brothers came home with a guitar that they bought for $12. I was ecstatic. The first time I picked it up I started singing and strumming. They looked at each other and said "he's good." God gave me that guitar to help me cope. From then on music was at the centre of my life. Our family never went to any Church.
In grade 5, I saw some kids flying kites in the schoolyard. I thought to myself "I want to learn to do that." So I went out and bought a kite and started flying. I wanted to fly it higher and higher. I bought 3000 feet of string (over a half mile). My kite was the highest flying kite of all the kids. It was a small speck in the sky that could hardly be seen. But I wanted to fly higher. I let out the string so far that it slipped off the end of the spool and the kite disappeared. This was to be the story of my life, always reaching beyond my grasp.
I remember pedaling at the end of a long line of 15-20 bicyclists on a bike path. I was determined to pass them. I would stand up and peddle hard. I would get past about 5 bicyclists, then other bikes would come the opposite direction and I would fall back to the end of the line. After 5-10 tries of this (and getting tired from wasting energy) an adult said"why don't you just sit back and enjoy this nice sunny day and enjoy your bike ride instead of trying to get to the front of the line." The idea of just enjoying something without "winning" was a foreign concept to me. Ironically, I was always the smallest weakest player on the worst team of every minor league hockey, football and baseball team I was on. This was not an extremely successful formula for contentment.
One day I was driving my bike by a Church just before the Sunday Mass. That was in the days when people got dressed up. I saw one of my school friends going inside with cutoff shorts. I laughed at him "ha, ha, you're going into Church with shorts on." He turned around and cut his eyes at me and said "at least I'm going in!" The big Church doors slammed shut and I turned around to an empty street. (Photo right, Paroisses Catholiques Romaines - Saint-Sébastien, 1000 Frances St, Ottawa, ON)
I got religious in my own way after that. I memorized all the words to "Jesus Christ, Superstar." I now know that it was scripturally weak but it taught me the Gospel to an extent and the name of Jesus was enough to breathe some life into me. I would bounce around the house singing "what's the buzz, tell me what's a happening."
I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night with knots in my stomach. One night, when I was 10 years old, I woke up and looked out the window and saw a blue neon Cross on the steeple of a Church. It was shining through the icicles that were hanging from our roof and the light came into my room. It was beautiful. The knot left my stomach. I think that was my first spiritual experience. I started singing about Jesus after that. It was a little song that I made up and sang over and over, driving my brothers crazy. (It is the same Church pictured above)
This is me at 10 years old on my Great Gramma's 100th birthday. She contributed her long life to hard work on a farm and clean living ...values I would one day throw away.
I got into a lot of trouble at public school and spent a lot of time in the hall. One time the teacher came out into the hall where she had sent me and said, "Hugh, we are supposed follow the orders of our teachers, that's the way God made us." I looked at her defiantly and said "I don't believe in God!" I could see her face drop. Without God as a reference of morality, children are uncontrollable. At least I was. The next year a different teacher gave me freedom to do whatever I wanted in the classroom and to sit wherever I wanted. That year I won every academic award in the school. But I learned a very bad lesson that would cause me much misery when I got older. It reinforced the idea that I could make up my own rules in this life.
Around that time I saw a movie called "War of the Worlds" based on a novel by H.G. Wells. One scene made an incredible impression on my 11 year old mind. The aliens had subdued the earth and all of humanity was about to be killed. People were huddled in a Church, crying out to God to save them and intercede. The walls of the Church were cracking and the roof began to fall in. Then suddenly there was silence outside. After a while people hesitatingly went out to find all the aliens dead. Bacteria had killed them. Prayers were answered. Little did I know that one day I would go into a church huddled in fear when my world was falling apart and the walls of my self-preservation began to crumble.
In grade 7, the school was doing "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." I didn't know anything about the story line but the music teacher asked me to do the lead "doo wop" song with 5 girls dancing behind me. At the school assembly the crowd of 800 kids went nuts and brought the house down after the song. It was the first time I got that kind of mass acceptance, and after that I knew I wanted to get as much of that drug of attention as I could find. Too bad I didn't think too much about the words of the Bible story I was singing.
It seemed like whenever I did something bad like steal of fight, things would get messed up. I got in a fight in the stairwell, one of the few where I got the upper hand. We were rolling on the floor. I had the guy pinned, and I was about to punch him. Suddenly, somebody opened the stairwell door which wedged my finger under the bottom of the door. When the door closed it slowly ripped off my fingernail, which bled profusely. So much for my big victory. I stole a watch from the gym. It was a bit too big for me so I tried to adjust it with my teeth. A piece of my tooth chipped off. I lost the watch.
One day, I was on the school bus with my brand new trumpet in an immaculate case. One fellow spat on me. Then another spat on me, and another and another, and for about 10 minutes, a bunch of kids were continuously spitting all over me. I got off the bus covered with green honking saliva. So was my brand new trumpet case. Several years later, in high school, I was reading the novel “Lord of the Flies” and I could really relate to a young boy named “Piggy” who was beaten up and thrown off a cliff by his “friends.” The darkness that can fall upon the hearts of young people and drive them to hurt one another is immeasurable. Oh Lord, I pray for our young people. But that humiliation drove me into wanting to show them that one day I'd be a "somebody."
When puberty hit, I kissed God good-bye. Except for a girl I met on a bilingual exchange who gave me a cross, I don't think I wanted anything to do with it. I had found girls, music, drinking and pot. After a couple of years I took the cross from around my neck and replaced it with a "Capricorn" horoscope sign.
This was just before I dumped the cross (14 years old)
I was kind of goofy but when I had a guitar in my hand - watch out! That is what made me well known around high school. My parents saw my talent and gave me private lessons on guitar, flute, vocal, and piano. My teachers put me in classical music festivals. I got a couple of "reel to reel" tape recorders and began recording the songs I'd written by putting one instrument upon another. I practiced 5 hours a day on guitar, flute and piano. My hang out was the music room at school - it was the oasis in my crazy life.
High School Talent Show
I also spent a lot of time at the discotheques, and I started to get very good at dancing. Unfortunately, I got beat up by a few bullies who were gang members. One night, a fellow who was twice my size followed me out of a discotheque with his gang. He started punching me over and over and broke my nose. I got away and ran. The gang of 20 guys were following me to finish me off. I hid in a snow bank and they all ran by me. I was only 10 feet from them. I can't believe they didn't see me. I stayed in the bank for 2 hours with a broken nose and swollen face bleeding on the fresh snow. Even though I didn't know God, God knew me and was protecting me. I'm sure he blinded them similar to what we read about in the Bible where the Arameans became confused after Elisha's prayer (2 Kings 6:18). Right after that incident our family miraculously bought a house on the other side of town and I was in a new high school.
Montreal and the Bahamas
At 16 years old my mom told me to get a summer job. My brother Gord suggested I play music on the street with my guitar case open. I thought that was a great idea, anything to get out of getting a real job. I started making pretty good money. Notice the flute beside me. It became a big part of my musical expression.
One day, while playing on the streets I met some people who drove me to a small town, Kemptville Ontario, "to play music with them." But when I arrived there was no music. I had no way to return on my own. Then they started talkingabout Jesus. They asked me how long it would take me to create a watch if I threw a bunch of nuts and bolts into a bucket and shook them around. I said "It would never become a watch." They said "and neither are you a creation of pure chance." I said "the thing I hate about Christian music is that all they sing about is God." They replied "all they sing about in pop music is boy/girl 'love'." That really hit me, I suddenly realized that 95% of all my songs were about "boy/girl" stuff.
Meanwhile, my parents got worried and called my uncle in Kemptville. He knew of this group, which was a 'cult like' sect that attracted street kids. My parents drove 40 miles and picked me up. Many years later I realized that the difference between a cult and a denomination was that cults try to deceive and manipulate weak or vulnerable people into membership by trapping them and wearing them down, and eventually suck the life out of them. Denominations breathe life into people by humbly presenting the truth of Christ's message in an open and free setting that does not use dishonest means to evangelise. God gave us free will, and any path that tries to trap and manipulate vulnerable people is highly suspect, even if they preach in the name of Jesus. I never forgot that weird evening and in a strange way the Lord would use it later on.
It was on the streets that I really came into my own. I learned how to command attention, and to keep people engaged. A French singer, Manuel Tadros from Montreal, saw me and asked me to join his band. He was quite well known and we played the big boits des chansons in Montreal "Les Deux Pierrots." He went on to become a well known song writer and actor in Quebec, writing songs for Roch Voisine and acting in dozens movies, TV shows and commercials.
Les Deux Pierrots, a club of 1500 people in Montreal. I'm on the left (18 years old), a young Manuel Tadros is in the centre. Claude Foisy is on keys. The people of Quebec were great audiences, because they would jump and sing along. What really makes me sad, is how Christianity in Quebec has become so ostracized, and Church attendance among youth is down to about 7%. Oh Lord pour you Grace on Quebec.
Around that time, I also made my first record with a small Ottawa company, Diana records owned by Ralph Mongeau. The fast life started. In the fall of that year, I was sent as a soloist to Club Med in Paradise Island, Bahamas. Drinking and sex, dancing and music - that was my life. I was 18.
New York, New York
The New York glamour magazines used to bring models down to the Bahamas for winter shoots. I fell in love with one of them. She invited me the live with her in New York City. A businessman who lived in New York was there and said "Yeah? That will last 2 weeks, what are you going to do then?"
I said "no, it's real love!" He gave me his card and told me to call him when she kicked me out. I told him "it's real love" but I took the card.
The night I arrived in New York, I was standing in the Port Authority bus terminal with my backpack and guitar looking like a lost, naive 19 year old Canadian. All of a sudden I noticed Puerto Rican guys standing on each side of me. They were asking me questions like "where are you from bro?", "how long are you here?", etc. I had heard about this kind of thing and I was getting ready to lose everything in a mugging. Then one of the guys said:
Have you ever heard about the Lord Jesus Christ? Do you know He saved us with his blood and you can share that if you are "born again" in Him?
I breathed a sigh of relief. I was not a believer but I was never so glad to see "born again" Christians in my whole life. I politely excused myself and went on my way - relieved.
Two days after I moved in with the model, I called the businessman who gave me his card - the model had kicked me out! How did he know?
I started playing in the clubs in Greenwich Village like Folk City. There were signed pictures of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and a myriad of other well known artists who were my gods at the time. I had stars in my eyes. I thought that if I could only be famous like them I would be happy and my life would be fulfilled. But for me it was playing subway stations and street corners. Washington Square Park was a lot of fun but I soon realized that it was full of "wanna be" musicians like me who had no money. However, I did manage to get robbed by a girl who I brought home from Washington Square one afternoon. My unchaste life was starting to catch up with me. It was a foreshadowing of what my lack of chastity would eventually cost me.
I got away from the street scene downtown and went up to Central Park just off 5th Avenue where the people with money went for their weekend walks and picnics. I would play to a couple hundred people on the side of the hill and turn the place into a party. It was great money and it subsidized me for two years on and off. I also played guitar in the subway station under the Citicorp building on 53rd at Lexington Ave. One day a guy watched me for about 30 minutes 'til I took a break. Then he came over and chatted. He said he liked my music and I asked him if he played. He said "not really, I'm into acting." He was young and beginning an acting career. He lived across the bridge in New Jersey. We talked about trying to make it in the Big Apple. We got along quite well and he gave me his number. I didn't think much about it and I never got around to calling him. A year later the movie "Risky Business" came out. The picture in the poster looked a lot like the guy I had talked to in the Subway. So I went home and looked him up in my phone book. The name I had written down was "Tom Cruise." I called the number but he had moved and I never saw him again. I thought to myself "if he can make it, so can I." I didn't realize that it took more than will power and hard work to succeed in New York.
One day I entered a Subway station around Times Square. In the corner as I descended the stairs, there was a Muslim guy there propagating the faith. I thought that anyone in a white religious cloak would be a peace seeker and I kind of felt unity with them since I was practicing Yoga. As I looked at him he seemed to scowl at me for some reason. I said, "you seem so angry." He said "I can take this thing off and come and beat the crap out of you." I didn't know much about Islam, I figured he was just having a bad day. Still I was concerned that he seemed so ready to fight. I kept walking onto the Subway train.
Harlem World rap music
One night I ran into some black record company executives from Harlem in a McDonald's next to a Greenwich Village Speakeasy. They invited me up to their club called Harlem World on the corner of 116th street and Lenox Avenue. I went up there and met with them. They loved the record that I had recorded in Canada. They said "hey we are in the studio tomorrow, do you want to come in and write some horn lines for us?" I said sure. I thought it was the coolest place around.
I was waiting for a bus outside the club to go back downtown. All of a sudden I felt an arm around my neck and I couldn't breathe. I was pulled to the ground and the guy tried to drag me into the alley. I resisted and the guy ran away with my guitar, gold necklace and money. I got up and went back into the club screaming "they took my guitar! they took my guitar!" "Fat Man" Jack Taylor, the owner of the club and a notorious gangster said, "get the guy who stole his guitar." Immediately the Harlem World Crew underground sprung into action and went through the back alleys of Harlem talking to their connections - looking for my guitar. Two hours later they came back with my guitar.
They gave me a job producing rap records. We recorded Love Bug Starski's (a.k.a. Kevin Smith) debut EP called "Positive Life" at the "The Platinum Factory" in Bedford Sty Brooklyn.Most rap historians credit him with coining the phrase "Hip Hop" because before going to jail, Luv Bug Starski was DJ-ing a street dance and shouted, "Hip Hop, you don't stop" and "Hip, Hip, Hop, snap crackle pop, everybody is doin the Rock Rock Rock!" The word "Hip Hop" became his signature and Love Bug is now considered a "legend" in the Hip Hop scene. Love Bug had just got out of jail and he wanted to do a rap song about the positive side of life, rather than drugs. Amen to that. Here's a snip of the track you'll notice that rap was not as developed back then, that's the style of "old school". Starski was signed to Atlantic Records two years later, one of the first rappers on a major label and got a #1 hit. He later became a good friend of Notorious M. Big
In the 18 months I was there, I produced Jeckyl & Hide, the Harlem World Crew, Lady "Smiley", and a several others. A lot of nights we would leave for the studio in Brooklyn at 9 pm and get home a 10:30 a.m. A few times I fell asleep on the floor of the studio. I learned to sleep anywhere and get a few winks wherever I could squeeze them in. But I learned a lot.
Harlem World brought in some of the top black artists like "The Mighty Sparrow", and "Eartha Kitt" (Cat Woman). I remember doing the sound for Eartha and jumping up on the stage to adjust some things. Suddenly, I realized how out of place I looked, and I bounced off the stage.
Cold Crush at Harlem World in the early 80's. Check out the disco ball over the dance floor.
Above: 20 Years old, the innocence is gone
It was an exciting time, break dancing was just hitting the clubs of Harlem and the South Bronx. Harlem World was where much of the action was. They called me "Mighty Whitey" (pronounced "Madday Wadday") and taught me how to break dance. There was a lot of free base cocaine, heroin and stuff around behind closed doors, but they tried to keep it out of my sight. The guys all had hearts of gold though, and they always watched out for the "Mighty Whitey" so that I didn't get into trouble. They used to sneak up behind me when I was dancing and dance behind me, imitating me and making fun of me cause I was kind of awkward and ....well, I danced like a white guy! I had a blast up there. I eventually became a decent dancer and the soul I learned in Harlem was to put me in the pick of the crop downtown on the Broadway audition circuit.
Middle: Steve Negron. I recently heard from Steve and am pleased to say he turned his life around and found the Lord Jesus. Front: a young DJ "Master Maze." Unfortunately, he chose a different path and died at 21 years old from a fatal gunshot wound. Lord have mercy.
The Harlem World Crew (Left to right) Son of Sam (Sam Blocker)
Above photo: DJ Kool D (Darryl Brown), Charlie Rock a.k.a Charles Leake (Charlie taught me the electric boogie - dance). Charlie moved on from the club life, he went to college and is a computer consultant today. He recently started producing R&B concerts in New York presenting some of the great artists of the 70's like "The Spinners" and "The Sylistics". Other members of the harlem World Crew were Randy Sanders and Dr. Jeckyl (Alonzo Brown) and Mr. Hyde, (Andre Harrell, who went on to become founder and CEO of Uptown Records and later, head of Motown Records). Photos by Joe Conzo www.joeconzo.com
Here's a tune I produced called "Let's Rock" by Lady Smiley.
In the beginning, Hip Hop artists would rap about how they were the best MC, and how they got all the ladies. Once in a while might mention drugs, or fighting with a guy to get a girl, but it wasn't about gangs, guns, and crime that came much later. Even the famous "battle" (competition) at Harlem World between the Cold Crush Brothers and The Fantastic Romantics where they dressed up as gangsters was more of a gag, than a serious violent gang. Those are plastic guns.
Photo: Joe Conzo, www.JoeConzo.com
I have to admit, I wasn't crazy about Rap music. I was much more into Soul and R&B. I thought Rap was a short term fad that would die in a month or two, perhaps a couple of years at the max. That was 1981, man was I wrong! I was wrong about rap, and I was wrong about God.
One night at 2am on the 3rd floor of Harlem World, I was sitting around with "Fat Man" and about 10 of his guys. I was trying to convince him to go back to R&B music which I liked a lot more. I got angry at one point and said "You can take your Rap music and shove it up your..." and walked out. As I walked away I felt 10 angry pairs of eyes staring through the back of my head. I went downstairs and tried to get out of the club. Then I realized I had done a very dumb thing because if I walked out into the Harlem streets at 2 am to get a cab without any of the guys protecting me, I wouldn't last 2 minutes. So I went back upstairs and apologized. They told me I was lucky they didn't put a serious beating on me that night. I was small and skinny with a big mouth. "Fat Man" Jack had a soft spot for me for some reason and he let me get away with a lot of arrogance. God was looking out for me.
I remember looking at a tenement in Harlem that had a big Cross on the front of it. That was their church. I just stared at it and wondered about people who had so much faith that they made a broken down Harlem tenement into a Church. I felt moved by that but pushed my feelings for God down with sex, drugs, and my mad dash for fame.
"Fat Man" wanted me to do an album called "Mighty Whitey and the Harlem World Crew." We started the recording but I went downtown to a 5th avenue lawyer who made a "white boy's" contract with all kinds of legal provisions. "Fat Man" looked at the contract and said "Yo boy, that ain't the way we does things around here?" I just didn't understand the culture. That put a chill on our record deal.
Jack Taylor's right hand man was O.C. Tolbert. OC was a great singer but he sang "Soul", he didn't do "Hip Hop" and so he had to wait on the recording thing and ended up being Jack's body guard. I think he got caught in the backstreet scene, but he had a heart of gold. I kept asking OC "when is Jack gonna let you do a record?" Because I wanted to produce R&B rather than the rap. OC said "Oh it's comin." I said "what are you going to put on the cover of the L.P." He said "I'm gonna look real rich, nice cloths, hat and chains." That was the difference between white folks and black folks back then. The white singers tried to look poor and wore blue jeans, and the black singers tried to look rich with nice white suits. I used to listen to O.C. do those cool R&B twists with his voice and I would try to imitate him but it was no use, I was white! But I became a much better singer by hanging around him.
I met a white guy, Russ Mason in a Greenwich Village club who did a rap parody called "Prep Rap" about rich white Preppy Ivy League schools. He was a tour guide at NBC studios and he knew the producer of the TV show "Coast to Coast with Tom Snyder." We did the song on the show and it was broadcast on NBC. That night the unknown "Weird Al Yankovic" performed the national debut of "Another One Rides the Bus" on the same show. It was the launch of his career.
The guys at the Harlem World saw me playing guitar for a white rapper (Rus Mason) on NBC TV and they were pretty angry that I played a song on international TV that was poking fun at rap. They called me and picked me up. As we were driving up to Harlem they started asking me about the show and my involvement with the guy. I could tell something was up. They were seriously mad and I was in danger. I asked them to let me out of the van but they wouldn't. I asked a bunch of times getting more and more desperate each time as their questions got more aggressive and pointed. I was scared. I could tell they were going to beat the crap out of me or worse. Finally, "Fat Man" said "let the boy out!" So that was the end of things with them. I ended up producing "Prep Rap" on Nemperor/CBS records and it got a feature pick in Billboard, but it didn't take off. Photo below right to left, Tom Bellino (great orchestrator), Russ Mason (comic, rapper), Hugh .
A couple of years later Harlem World was looking for a country guitarist and figured that because I was white I was probably good at country music. I'm living proof that not all white guitarists can play country music! But I'm glad they called me 'cause it was kind of their way of forgiving me. "Fat Man" always had a soft spot for guys like me, and forgave my arrogance and my self-centred ambition.
A year after I left Tayster/Rojac Records, O.C. finally did record a great song. "I've Got It." listen to a snip here. He went on to become one of the core underground R&B singers of the 80's.
I heard that Jack Taylor died a couple of years later, after a long battle with freebase cocaine. Harlem World closed in 1985 and a page of music history had turned. I pray Fat Man Jack Taylor found the Lord before he died. I'm praying for you Jack.
O.C. Tolbert moved back to Detroit. He turned his life over to Jesus in the late 1980's. He got cleaned up and became a singing Reverend. One night in 1995 he did a big revival show, he walked off the stage and had a heart attack and left this life. The last song he recorded was called "Heaven Bound." It was produced by Bob Dennis who mastered all of Motown's songs in the 60's. The chorus was:
I'm going up to Heaven
I'm going to sing and shout
Be nobody there to put me out
'Cause I am heaven bound
This one's for you O.C. One day we'll be singing soul together in the sky. And then I'll be able to sing like you :-)
Brushes with Death
There is a saying "the Lord takes care of fools and drunks." He sure took care of me. One evening in 1982, I was playing guitar and singing in a Subway station under Citibank on 53rd and Lexington as I often did. It had been a good evening's work, about $80. I packed up and got on the Subway home. It was about 11 p.m. and I was alone on the Subway car. Three guys came into the car and sat on each side of me and across from me. They looked at each other, then at me. I got an uneasy feeling. I pulled my guitar closer to me, but it became clearthat this was going to get ugly and I was going to get sacked. Then the door that joined the cars together at the end of the train opened and a Puerto Rican with a red beret (hat) came through the door. He was a "guardian angel" - literally. The "Guardian Angels" are a gang of youth who ride through the subway cars in packs of 20 to protect the people on the trains. The three guys who were sizing me up got up. One of them slapped me on the head as he was exiting and said. "You are lucky this time!"
I stepped off a corner sidewalk one day to cross 52nd street. A bus whisked by so close that it touched my hair and its wind pulled my jacket, I was stunned by how close I had come to death.
One day as I entered a subway station on 42nd street a guy grabbed my arm asking me for money, I pulled away and kept going. I looked back to see seven big guys coming after me. I ran down the subway stairs. I was quite certain they would catch me and I would be beaten to a pulp - or worse. I turned a corner in the terminal and a police officer was standing there. When the guys following saw the police they turned around and left me. Why did God protect me when I didn't believe in Him? I don't know.
The first abortion
I never understood that sex was something ordained by God as sacred, and as a gift to humans for bonding and for making life. I thought sex was something you did for fun and as an expression of your feelings if you liked someone and were attracted to them. The idea of lifelong commitment was outside my scope of understanding. I was going out with a girl who I had met when I was playing music in Central Park. After an unexpected pregnancy, I "helped" her arrange an abortion. The abortion really affected her, but we assured ourselves that a baby would not be a good thing at that time because she was a student at the American Music & Dramatic Academy (AMDA) and I was climbing the entertainment ladder. We were both on a mad dash for success. But it really affected her. She has always carried that loss with her although today she is married and has a child with a famous person who is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, who everyone reading this story would know. I dulled the pain with my ambition.
Broadway and Hollywood call
My roommates were actors. One day they showed me an ad for an open call in the "Village Voice" looking for Rock & Roll singers and performers for a Broadway show. The audition got a lot of publicity. I trucked down to the 42nd street theatre with my guitar and stood in line in the wee hours of the morning with 2000 other hopeful souls waiting for a shot at the big time. When my 2 minute audition came at 2 p.m., I exploded on the stage in a blues number and then sang a very pretty ballad. They told me not to leave town. After six weeks and six callbacks I was cast in a Broadway show playing the roles of Mick Jagger, Sting, Alice Cooper, Procol Harem and the Crewcuts. I also played guitar, flute and trumpet in the show. I was 21 and one of the youngest on Broadway that season.
For the next three years the high-life was my life. I worked with Robert Downey Jr., Christopher Lloyd and Broadway star Liz Calloway, Jimmy Haslip of the Yellow Jackets and Gary Katz of Steely Dan. I toured in "Cats", acted off-Broadway, costarred and was principle actor in films for Paramount, Columbia, ABC TV, commercials for Nintendo and Levis, produced music for CBS records and won a Feature Pick in Billboard Magazine. I was at all the right parties in New York, hanging out with the famous people, doing drugs and drinking with them. The casting agents were saying "you're going to be a star" and I believed them.
I was cast in a play at Playwrights Horizon's (Off Broadway) called "Elm Circle." At one point in the play, I was the character of a "born again" Christian who tries to Evangelize a girl (the main character of the play) on a train. It was ironic that I was cast as an Evangelist, considering I was an atheist at the time. God was foreshadowing. In the play, she rejected my Evangelization as crazy, much like I rejected the two "born again" guys in Grand Central Station. In the play she goes on looking for meaning in life while traveling to Hollywood to become a movie star. Eventually, she commits suicide. That is how the play ended - a powerful testimony and a foreshadowing of my rejection of God. I didn't get the message.
This is me (Hugh ) playing Mick Jagger in a show called "Rock & Roll: the First 5000 Years" at the Broadway St. James Theatre. Beside me is Karen Mankes, who went on to star in the "Police Academy" movies.
I was recently in NYC and took this picture of Times Square (around the corner from the theatre I played). It was weird to be standing there 25 years later. It feels like another life.
Everything was on the up and up. I was going to parties with the "in crowd." At a party at the house of the producer for the Pointer Sisters' some guys came up to us and chatted for a while. They seemed vaguely familiar but I couldn't place them. After they left, my friend turnedand said, that was Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons from the rock band KISS. They didn't have their makeup on!
I got to play with some fantastic musicians. I was in a band called Invisible Pedestrian. We were produced by Gary Katz (Steely Dan, Diana Ross, Joe Cocker) and our bass player was Jimmy Haslip. Unfortunately, we were all pretty messed up, except for Jimmy. He was a clean living hard working guy. He was tall and dark skinned. I kept trying to turn his baseball cap to the side of his head to make him look like a "bro." But he made it clear that hip hop and rap wasn't his scene and he didn't want to look like a "bro." He used to sit on the side of the room during rehearsal breaks quietly playing the most amazing jazz chords and melodies. I said "that's fantastic, who wrote it." He said "I did." He later went on to form the band called "The Yellow Jackets" and won 5 Grammy awards in the jazz category. Sorry I misunderstood you Jimmy.
It was all very exciting except for one thing: the emptiness I felt inside. When I was growing up, I had a list of achievements that I thought would make me happy. e.g., being on Broadway, having a beautiful girlfriend, getting famous, making money etc. If I could only get all of the things on the list I thought my life would be a dream. After I checked off all the items on the list I was still unhappy. It baffled me. Everything I touched turned to gold but nothing was enough. I had a hole inside me. I tried to fill it with more and more success. I tried to fill it with sex. I tried cocaine, drinking, and sugar binges. Nothing worked. I didn't realize the hole was a hunger for God.
Less than a year after the abortion, I was cast in a Broadway show called "Baby" about three couples who were expecting children. It was the only Broadway show ever to cover this topic in such detail and was the first major role for Liz Calloway who was to play my wife. I now understand that my subconscious would not let me do the show. I left 3 days before rehearsals to do a series called "Flashdance" for NBC. The NBC series was shelved and Todd Graff who replaced me in "Baby" was nominated for a Tony award in the role I gave up. The cast album is here. He is a well known writer and director today. It is ironic that after an abortion, I was cast as an expecting father in a show called "Baby" and gave it up in my lust for more notoriety.
I moved into a 14th street apartment with an actor. He mentioned we should turn the "run down" old New York apartment into a cool bachelor pad. I thought it was a great idea. Two days after I moved in, he went with friends to Studio 54 for a hip Friday night of schmoozing. When he got back I had the entire wall of my room torn down to the brick with all the lattice and plaster all over the place. He looked at me in shock. I said "isn't this cool, I'm starting the renovations..." His jaw dropped. I was always very enthusiastic about everything and I was baffled that the friendship didn't take off. After several months my room looked pretty great, then I got a show and moved out. That was the story of my life, I had 23 living addresses in 4 years.
Another abortion starts the spiral downward
I did not learn my lesson. Soon after that I met a girl who was a doctor (M.D.) and a professional dancer with well known dance troop. She danced in New York during the fall, spring and winter and then practiced medicine in Montreal during the summers. I was very proud of her. One night she told me she was pregnant even though she was using the pill. We agreed that it was an inconvenient time to have a baby because we were "building our careers." We aborted the baby.
Although she wanted the abortion also, the moment she was on the operating table and the doctor was using a suction machine to remove the parts of our baby, she had a powerful urge to say "put that back!" It was devastating to her emotionally. No amount of medical training, no amount of glamorous success in dancing could explain away the emptiness. With all of her education, with all her brilliance as a dancer, there was no explanation for this emotional tumble, except that we had done something horribly wrong. No amount of success could cover her motherhood. After the abortion, an emptiness swallowed me. Like many couples who have abortions, not long after it we broke up.
I wrote a song:
you and me
have killed the seed
that was planted in our souls
now there's only you
and only me
and a memory of our world
we had it all and watched it blow
away, and where it goes
we haven't got a clue
nothing we can do
I thought the song was about the lost relationship. In hindsight, I can see my soul calling out against what I had done to my child. My spiritual emptiness was clear in the song. The darkness surrounded me. I've since learned that many couples break up after an abortion and very often both the man and woman go into the emptiness of depression.
I was the Rock & Roll Cat for the US National tour of "Cats." I fell to 115 pounds and I was supposed to be playing the cool Rum Tum Tugger - Rock Star Cat. I looked like hell, the devil had me. I fell into an eating disorder, anorexia. I got very sick with a sore throat. The doctor told me not to talk for three weeks. I was cocky and said "Hey, I have 10,000 people a week and an $80,000US/year starring role. I can't stop singing." He said "well then do what you want!" I kept singing.
I blew my voice out completely, I lost the show.
I lost my career and I couldn't talk for 3 years. I communicated with a pen and paper. I was 24 years old. The reasons for the abortion evaporated with my career.
I drifted into depression. Director/choreographer Kenny Ortega (High School Musical etc.) called me up to tour with Madonna, MTV called me to audition as a VJ, but I was done, I had no voice. There I was alone with my miserable mind and it was relentless - never stopped. I couldn't talk except for 10 minutes a day.
I was walking through Times Square and I suddenly heard whispering in my ear from behind me. It was a young man's voice that said "Assume the living God, you can't close the doors when the walls are caving in!" I turned around to see a large crowd. I didn't know who it was. I never forgot those words.
One morning, I was sitting in a coffee shop on 72nd street at Broadway. I had no voice and my future looked bleak. Suddenly, bits and pieces of the Lord's prayer came into my mind. I hadn't thought about that prayer since grade 5 when we recited it in school during daily opening exercises. I could only remember a line at a time and I forgot where everything went, but over the course of an hour or so, I had most of it written on my napkin. I was shocked by its wisdom and depth. I had never seen it as an adult. "Oh Lord forgive our culture for pulling your prayer out of our public schools."
I hung around New York for about 9 months hoping to heal but my career was done. I quit drinking and using drugs and set out on my quest for truth. During that time I started looking for answers to the "meaning of life." I got into all kinds of New Age spiritual things - in Boston, Connecticut, San Francisco etc. Many of them were cult like. I was reading Shirley McClain's "Out on a Limb" book. I went all over the US and spent most of my money on these organizations. I would get on the edge of giving my entire life over to an organization when a strange twist of circumstances would pull me out. Then I'd look for another. God is patient.
Jesus calls but I let him go
One day I was walking by Madison Square Garden near my apartment. There were a bunch of busses outside with black people all dressed up in suits. My memories of Harlem came flooding back and I went up to one of them and wrote on my pad (I couldn't talk) "what's going on?" The man said "Come on in and find out."
Inside, I was about the only white face in the crowd of thousands. Then the music started. It was a revival meeting. And I mean a Revival meeting! Man did it rock! And the preacher was on fire for God. At the end there was an alter call. I went up. Two big black men held my chest and said "Scream for the Lord Brother." They didn't know I had no voice. I let out a whimper but felt the fire. An older black lady came upwith tears in her eyes. She said "Now you read the Bible. Never stop. Join a Church. God bless you my son!" I went back to my apartment on 29th street very moved, but I did not follow up with a Church or the Bible. The fire smoldered. I now understand how important it is to join a community of Christian believers once we've had an encounter with the Holy Spirit.
After a family tragedy, I woke up at 3 a.m. crying out to God about my situation. I was wondering why I found myself in the middle of such horrible circumstances. I was writing in my journal "God, it's not fair, why am I in this situation."
Suddenly my hand started writing by itself. As I watched my hand, I didn't know what I was writing until I finished. Then I looked at it and my jaw dropped. It said:
I instantly understood that the abortions I was involved with were murder and that although the abortions were legal, in God's eyes they were murder. I hired a hit man "doctor" to take the life of my baby. In the midst of this crisis, God showed me the sanctity of life from conception and how He loves all children, including the unborn. Oh Lord forgive me.
Back in Ottawa
After I lost my voice, I returned to Ottawa to heal and to be with my family through the tragic loss of the child Andrew. My grandfather Ivan was an ex-farmer who was very level headed. He took me into his home. He was 90 years old and I was supposed to be taking care of him but it was often the other way around. He was almost deaf and I had no speaking voice - the odd couple - but somehow we communicated. He taught me how to get up at 6 am which is when I used to go to bed. He taught me how to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at meal times rather than at 2am. He didn't drink alcohol either. Right: Photo of Grampa Ivan Hawkshaw.
I started a recording studio business in my grandfather's house. I used the excuse that he was deaf. I forgot that drums make a whole house shake. He was very tolerant. I loved him. By this time I could talk about 30 minutes a day. He was a United Church goer but used to laugh good naturedly at a preacher who lived in the house behind him. This preacher used to come home drunk. As my grandfather got to the end of his life I could see him leaning more and more on Jesus. This impressed me but I was still into the New Age which combined Eastern mysticism and Western paganism.
Inside the Gay community
During that time our doctor, who had been our family physician since I was a child, was counseling me. I had questions about gay producers and directors hitting on me in New York and a couple of cross-gender experiences. My doctor said it would be healthy to explore the gay community. He sent me to a "coming out right" group. At first it felt very liberating. I got active in political letter writing campaigns, speaking out on "gay rights." The New Age people I was hanging out with were totally cool with gay sexuality, and any kind of sexuality for that matter. They said "we are sexual beings and that our sexual natures needed to express themselves." They liked the New Age because it made no moral demands on them. They said each of us has a "moral compass" and all we needed to do was follow our own "truth." They didn't mention the human mind's almost limitless ability for self-justification.
I became a letter writing, pride marching advocate for “LGBT rights". I had come out to my family and to all my friends. Everyone was generally supportive. I felt empowered, affirmed and emboldened.
But deep down I knew there was something wrong. Actually, my life was unravelling.
The next 18 months were pretty much a disaster which fueled my eating disorder, which in turn aggravated my voice problems. I was bingeing and vomiting up to six times a day. The more I tried to identify with the gay community the worse I got. The final blow was when our family doctor asked me out on a date even though he was married with kids. I stopped going to him. It messed me right up.
During this "coming out " process, I found that same sex attracted people often find themselves in the gay community because it's the place they are welcome. But there is a sentiment in the gay community that if someone chooses abstinence they are in denial. The gay community's answer to sexual questions is almost always sex which, I think, is exactly the wrong answer. There is an even worse kind of denial than not "coming out," and that is the denial of God's call, on all people, to chastity.
A fateful turn in Montreal
I went to Montreal to meet a famous New Age Guru who was going to give me a new name like "Sri Baba." I was going to abandon everything and move to a little cult town in Virginia called Yogaville. I took the bus to Montreal. I got lost in Montreal and got off the bus. I looked up and saw a huge Church. It was Saint Joseph's Oratory. I was struck by its beauty and majesty.
I walked into the Church and saw elderly women putting their hands on the feet of the statue of Jesus. They were whispering prayers and humbly walking away with their heads bowed. I was very moved and said to myself, "These women have faith! Maybe the Church isn't a cold stone building full of hypocrites" - which was my attitude before that moment. I walked around the tomb of brother Andre. (I bet he was interceding for me). I felt very moved and went upstairs to the large Church upstairs. The lights were off, and the Church was empty. There was just a light on the Cross. Unlike my experience at Madison Square Garden, this time I was alone with the Lord. It was just me and Him. I lay face down on the stone floor and said:
"Lord Jesus, I don't know you at all, but here I am, thinking of changing my name, of leaving my home, and joining a cult. Could you please come into my life? Take my heart, take my health, take my circumstances, take everything about me. I'm yours."
I got up and lost all interest in the Guru and the cult I was going to join. I was infused with the Holy Spirit. The New Age was gone - thank God! I stood up tall and walked out of there a new man - a man called to the Holy and Apostolic Catholic Church.
The Oratory in Montreal had a neon cross like the one in my neighborhood that I saw as a child. It was on Queen Mary Street, the same name as the street I grew up on in Ottawa, where I had the experience as a child.
Photo left: Queen Mary Street, Ottawa
Photo right: Queen Mary Street, Montreal
My life and interests changed dramatically after that. I was still part of the LGBT community but noticed many things with which I could no longer agree. I hadn't discussed my thoughts with anyone around Church or in the LBGT community and wasn't influenced by any individuals in this shift. It was just an internal knowing. Soon after, I knelt in front of a cross at a church and I clearly heard the Lord asking me to leave the LBGT community. He did not want me to be any part of it. I immediately felt a huge weight come off my back, much more so than the weight that was lifted when I first came out. I stopped going to all gay meetings, and all the New Age stuff, walked away from it all. Several years later I was on a BBC radio show (2 minute audio) about my experience in the gay community.
The Call away from Music
On returning to Ottawa, I felt God calling me to completely give up all music. It was terrifying because it was a leap into nothingness. It was a leap into the absurd. I was being called to give up the god of art for the God of our Fathers. I closed my recording studio, gave away and sold all of my equipment, guitars, keyboards, recording gear, sound equipment, including my cherished flute. I destroyed thousands of hours of work, including that which I considered an extension of my soul - ten years of expensive, irreplaceable master recordings of my music compositions. I went to work for minimum wage at a local charity. I kneeled in front of Churches at 5 am every morning.
In retrospect, it was the greatest moment of clarity I've ever had. However, as the philosopher Kierkegaard explains, there is a cost to making an "absurd" decision for God. Sometimes that which follows is hard. We step forward with "fear and trembling" (Mar 5:33, 2 Co 7:15, Phil 2:12). Abraham was not spared the dread of looking into the eyes of Isaac as he lifted the knife, (Gen 22:1-19) Mary was not spared the pain of being misunderstood by Joseph (before the angel visited him - Mat 1:24); the apostles were not spared the fear of their faith as early Christians (Acts), and I was not spared emotional turmoil of giving up everything with which I identified. Nor was I spared the dread of being misunderstood by my relatives who believed I had gone mad. So the paradox of a decision for God, as Kierkegaard explains, is that the "closer we come to the Absolute, through inwardness, the less we are understood by the outside world."
But I made a mistake. I cut ties with my family and did not talk to any of my family while I sorted out my mind and my life.
One night I accidentally locked myself outside my house and walked around the neighborhood thinking of what I could do. I knocked on the door of St. Mary's rectory. Father Bob Bedard opened the door. He took one look at me and said something like "My God, you poor boy, come in." I guess I didn't look very well back then. He put me up in the rectory for 3 nights. He fed me and talked to me. When he heard my story about Montreal and how I had left everything to follow Jesus, he realized I was a new Christian and needed to be spiritually nourished (which is what I didn't get after my New York experience with Jesus). He got me into a prayer meeting and I began the fellowship of Christ. I started attending Catholic Mass in 1989, I began daily Rosary in 1991, and I became a Catholic in 1995. I never thought I would play music again. The story of how I became drawn to Catholicism is here.
I eventually went to University, graduated in the class of 2000 (B. Com, Magna Cum Laude - which surprised me - a right brained musician) and began working with people with disabilities. It was God's Millennium gift to me. I was walking in the light and staying close to the body of Christ. A story of my 10 years away from music, the miracle that gave me a career working with technology for people with disabilities and how I overcame disability in my own life is here.
Jesus Gives Back the Music
In April 1998, I was on a Cursillo weekend retreat. There was a teaching that love is at the centre of a Christian life. Then the retreat leader said "I'd like everyone to create an artistic expression of what you've learned in this talk." Some people picked up coloured ink markers and started drawing. Then something happened to me. I saw a guitar.
I hadn't touched an instrument in 10 years. I picked it up and started strumming and singing the words that the retreat leader used in the talk. Another person started singing and a beautiful song called "Love at the Centre" was born. The retreat went nuts and everyone sang, no one knew I had been a musician. It became the theme of the weekend. My voice came back nice and clear. That moment of singing was more of a high than my Broadway opening. I was doing it for the right reasons. For God - for Jesus!
Here are my fellows at the men's Cursillo April '98 where God gave back music. Hundreds of people were praying for us. Many of us had miracles. I'm 3rd from the left in the bottom row.
I said "Lord, I would love to record that song but I don't know how I could. I have no money, no instruments and no studio." Several days I saw a guy on the street that I recognized. He said "Hugh, you produced me in the 80's and I was so inspired by your production that I bought $10,000 worth of recording equipment and a flute. I'm a lawyer now and have no spare time. Would you like to borrow my recording gear and flute?" My jaw dropped and I accepted. A few days later I met a another fellow who said "Hugh I have an electric guitar and an amp that I don't use would you like to borrow them? " I was floored and said "yes!" A woman from Church came up and said "Hugh my mother died and I had given her a $1,200 digital piano. Would you like to have it? Within in a few weeks I had a room full of recording gear and I was recording my first Christian song. Amen.
The miracle of the returned flute
But something weird happened. The day after I received all the stuff was "Good Friday." I came out of the shower and noticed that the front door was open and the expensive flute was gone. I ransacked my apartment looking for the flute but it was nowhere to be found. I thought to myself "oh no, it is stolen, I'll have to drop out of university to pay for a new flute for this guy." I called the police and they said "go to all the pawn shops and second hand music stores." I spent the full day driving around town looking for it, no luck. The last place I went the owner said "Hugh ? ...You came in here over 10 years ago and put your flute on consignment, and then you never came back for it. It never sold. Would you like it back?" I was amazed, there was the flute I gave away 10 years earlier. The owner gave it to me.
But I still hadn't located the stolen flute that I had borrowed from the
lawyer. The next day was Easter Sunday, the day of our Lord's resurrection. I
opened a drawer to get some cloths, and my friend's flute was sitting
there ...I have no idea how ... I'm sure I checked that drawer before calling
the police. The Lord had tricked me into finding my original flute by thinking
the borrowed one was stolen.
This is me reunited with my flute. The photo was taken on a mission trip to Guam. Notice the bend in it. I play it like a clarinet. (Photo: Dwayne Sanchez)
Ottawa is host to CHRI Radio (99.1 FM), the biggest Christian radio station in Canada with 32,000 listeners. I dropped by the station and said "I made this recording at home, I haven't played in 10 years so I don't know if it's any good." They said it was excellent and put it in regular rotation. A few other stations picked it up and a little music ministry was born for me.
One day I walked into the station and the producer asked me to read a commercial. This is the first time they ever did that. I looked at the copy and started to read on the mike. It said:
Christmas is Love, Christmas is Family. This Christmas Focus on your family.
My jaw dropped. I hadn't talked to my family in 10 years. I knew that this was a sign from God. I called my parents up on Christmas morning and asked if I could join them for Christmas. They said "absolutely." I knocked on the door and saw my teenage nieces and nephews who I hadn't seen since they were toddlers and there were three nieces and two nephews who I'd never seen before. They gave me a card that said "Merry Christmas Uncle Hugh", and each of them wrote a little personal message on it. The emotions were incredible and I thought I was going to burst. They welcomed me with open arms. God is amazing. God wants us to be family. Today I get along well with my parents.
Photo: Hugh in concert in India
I have been free of all drugs, alcohol, sex, porn and all the rest of that stuff for many years. I don't even drink coffee or eat sugar! I am following the Magisterial moral teachings taught by the Church and found in the Word of God. I go to daily Mass, Rosary and the Liturgy of the hours.
In the summer of 2007 I met a very special woman. Diane was a full time prayer missionary with the Canadian National House of Prayer which prays for our government. I never thought I would experience this kind of love. We were married January 1st, 2011. I would lay down my life for you Diane, and I love you beyond measure, beyond time and space and beyond my finiteness. I want to spend my life with you and only you.
Photo of Diane by Hugh
Photo of Hugh & Diane by Laverne Kundert
These days our goal is to become "radically moderate." I work with technology for people with disabilities. Diane works at the head office of the Canadian organization helping people with disabilities. I also try to minister to people who have addictions, eating disorders, or who are struggling with other forms of sin. I help out with my nephews who were orphaned.
After 5 years of marriage God gave us a tremendous gift. We had an "au natural" pregnancy with no medical intervention, at this late stage in our lives. The obstetrician said in 35 years he'd never seen an "au Natural pregnancy" at this age. We have a beautiful and healthy daughter "Adessa Marie".
After 10 years as a touring Christian artist in many countries, I have now turned my attention to the family life. It is a pleasure to learn the responsibilities which I avoided so many years ago. I thank God for a second chance. I love my life with Diane.
I also love sitting in prayer with my Lord, after communion, or reading his Holy Word in the Bible. When I read the Bible I feel a connection with the men and women of old who left us this great legacy which God gave to them to give to us. In prayer, I feel a powerful connection with He who made me, and He who will return me to himself when my time is over on this earth.
Lord Jesus, I thank you for all you have given me. I thank you for all I have lost. And I thank you for all the hearts that you've touched through me and the hearts that have loved me to health and happiness in your most Precious and Holy Name. Amen